21 January 2011

What's in it for us?

The UK Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary have visited Australia and spoken with their counterparts, which is nice. They even wrote a piece for the paper on how important this is for Britain.

Nobody in Australia's mainstream media, apart from the grossly inadequate Greg Sheridan (of whom see more below) has bothered to consider what this might mean for Australia. Are the UK going to help us in trade with their Eurobuddies (well, those that have the readies to spend on our products and services)? What Australian foreign policy aims are helped by a close and productive relationship with the UK? Which of those aims are harmed or in any way limited by an Australia-UK relationship that is less than fully engaged?

Are they going to help us in any way at all? Most of their article is generalities and fluff (we're all concerned about cybercrime and terrorism). Hague and Fox mention North Korea, and while UK forces played an important role there in 1950-53 their presence since then has been scant. Having the UK weigh in to the Korean conflict today is about the same as having them not do so. The last time the Brits showed any real foreign policy interest in this part of the world was during the 1960s, fighting for Malaysia in Konfrontasi with Indonesia while retreating from colonial interests.

A hundred years ago Australia adopted many governmental institutions from the UK, but in recent years the reverse is true and looks set to continue. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have state parliaments just like those of Western Australia or Victoria, and England is clamouring for one just like it. Even London has a dinky municipal government not dissimilar to that of the ACT. The London Olympics is being run along the same lines as the Sydney Games of renown. The Bank of England, formed almost a century before the first settlement at Sydney, has been restructured in the same way as the Reserve Bank of Australia. In the wake of the GFC this country's prudential regulatory system will be grafted onto the City; there won't be any of that Montagu Norman nonsense as in the 1930s.

So, the UK wants to increase their trade with Asian countries - ah, so they're a competitor. This is significant for Australian foreign and trade policy, and should have an astringent effect on all that treacle about shared ties. For the first time in two centuries, the UK is no longer among our top ten trading partners. UK retailers are flocking to open stores in Australia's solvent cities while the same is not happening in reverse (another reason to despise Gerry Harvey et al in their bellyaching about online sales from foreign websites). Am I right in suspecting that there is a great deal for the UK in an improved UK-Australia relationship, while there is a real possibility that (warning: inevitable sporting analogy coming up), as on the Test cricket pitch and Fortress Twickenham, we Australians are being played for mugs.

It is significant that the News Ltd papers haven't made more of the Hague-Fox visit for the sake of cross-promotion in the company's UK brands. Tony Blair would have given News Ltd as much facetime as they could handle, if not more so. Greg Sheridan's blimpish effort is an an attempt to assert his employer's importance and to address the idea that there is a lot for Australia in such a relationship. Could News Ltd be declining in power in UK public life?

To describe the UK-Australia relationship with "intimacy", as Sheridan does repeatedly, is nonsense. It implies a reciprocity that was never forthcoming from London, however much I-did-but-see-her-passing-by loyalty went the other way.
Some Poms, especially journalists, can still be condescending and cliche-driven when they consider Australia.

I didn't know Greg Sheridan was a Pom.
Blair frequently referred to Australia as Britain's "closest ally in the Asia Pacific". But apart from the Five Power Defence Arrangements, which link Britain and Australia in the defence of Singapore and Malaysia, there is no formal military alliance between us.

In other words: Blair was just blowing smoke, Greg, wasn't he.
Blair and Howard ... were polite but noncommittal [at the idea of a closer Australia-UK relationship]. Blair joked to me that perhaps Britain and Australia together could invade China.

Did Blair make a joke to you, Greg, or of you?
Downer responded thoughtfully and you could see the idea taking up residence in his head.

No wonder Downer retired - when journalists can see your neural pathways at work it's time to get out.
Blair responded with immediate enthusiasm and relish. So did Howard. Thus AUKMIN was born.

And bugger-all came of it, just another part of the ISAF discussions over Afghanistan and Iraq, with a bit of camouflage about Our Long-Standing Shared Interests over the more difficult aspects of these negotiations.
No British foreign secretary has visited Australia since 1994 ... the main UK-Australia talking points were Paul Keating's attacks on British policy in World War II and his couching of his pro-Asia policies with an anti-Europe tinge ... [there was] a certain reluctance on his [Hurd's] part to repeat the experience.

Not to the point of dereliction of his official duties.

The elipses in the above quoted paragraph represent Sheridan big-noting himself and his opinions. Compare it to the original and you see that nothing is lost in the editing.

Never mind the outsized role for Greg Sheridan, it is amazing that John Howard or Alexander Downer should have spent a decade in office before they even considered the idea of closer ties with Britain, or that it would be worth doing. One of the first things Howard did as PM was get himself and Jeanette to London, hole up at the Dorchester and picfac themselves silly in front of the door at Number 10. You'd think he'd be able to whack up a bit of policy infrastructure to support Our Long-Standing Shared Interests. You'd think that experienced politicians such as he and Blair would take less than eight or nine years to stumble upon such commonalities.

Sheridan's final paragraph, about burrowing through Mother England's apronstrings to have an influence upon the world, is sheer utter guff of the type always promised but never realised throughout this country's history. From Lloyd George attempting to sideline Billy Hughes at Versailles, the pattern has been set: Australia exerts is influence most strongly when it resists the jowl-wobbling outrage from Westminster that we have a national interest at all, let alone the temerity to express it and work with others to make it real.

If Britain is willing to help us in some material way, or if there is the prospect of that (some clearly identified Australian objective which may be enhanced by UK co-operation), I and many other Australians would be keen to find out what that might be. Foreign policy is one aspect of public policy, and as such it should come under public scrutiny and involvement - indeed, all this guff about Our Long-Standing Shared Interests tends to imply this. What we need is another UK tradition - a fearlessly independent and investigative media which reports decisions of government to the citizenry. Oh, wouldn't it be luvverly?

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